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Seeing Through a Character’s Eyes: Literally

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photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Under cover of full dark, we mounted the magical winged creatures who had responded to our call. Fog swallowed us whole as we made our escape into the sky. Far below, farmers emerged from their huts to wish us well…

Wait a minute. Considering the full dark and the fog, how exactly did our hero and his friends see farmers emerge from their huts far below, let alone see the waving of their tiny little hands?

On screen or onstage, the need for adequate lighting design is obvious. The audience needs to be able to see what’s going on. While it is true that literature can tap all the senses, it is through your point-of-view character’s perceptions—and often, his eyes—that the reader is able to envision what is going on in a scene. But any tension gained by tapping into our universal fear of the dark will fizzle if your reader can’t figure out how your point-of-view character can see the objects being described.

Let’s take a look at the confident use of light in the opening of Cold Mountain by Charles Frasier:

At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward. He flapped the flies away with his hands and looked across the foot of his bed to an open triple-hung window. Ordinarily he could see to the red road and the oak tree and the low brick wall. And beyond them to a sweep of fields and flat piney woods that stretched to the to the western horizon. The view was a long one for the flatlands, the hospital having been built on the only swell within eyeshot. But it was too early yet for a vista. The window might as well have been painted gray.

Had it not been too dim, Inman would have read to pass the time until breakfast, for the book he was reading had the effect of settling his mind. But he had burned up the last of his own candles reading to bring sleep the night before, and lamp oil was too scarce to be striking the hospital’s lights for mere diversion.

I love the writing here, especially the description of light as “the first gesture of morning.” But look at how much we learn about our unsettled protagonist, all while describing the boredom of a long hospital stay due to a neck wound. Through what can’t be seen we learn the extent of what typically can be seen, and Inman’s ability to do so is explained by how the hospital is situated. That Inman can recall these details suggests that he has been studying the lay of the land. Given today’s unusual conditions, the expectation is raised that something is about to change—a change that less observant characters might not witness (“the window might as well have been painted gray”). Indoor light sources here help reinforce the historical setting during the Civil War.

But such details can get jumbled while drowning in the verbiage of your first draft, and they’re easy enough to miss when revising. A continuity edit might unearth scenes inadvertently illuminated with:

  • Three full moons in a month. If your story is set on Earth, this just isn’t possible. And you can only count on two full moons per month once in a blue moon (every two to three years, which is exceptional enough that it should be noted). To avoid this mistake, track the events of your story on a calendar complete with phases of the moon. If writing historical fiction, googling the moon phase for the exact day and location you’re researching can keep you on track.
  • The sun rising and setting through the same picture window. To avoid this problem, draw a map of how the house is situated, adding any buildings around it that might affect when the sunrise or sunset might be seen. Doing so may reveal other story possibilities—an obstacle that means the sun hits the neighbor’s house well before your character’s could be an interesting clue, for example. Tall housing on narrow streets, whether in modern America or ancient Europe, may never allow direct sunlight.


What affects how the POV character perceives details

For every scene, ask yourself how the character can see the details he’s describing, and how the light (or lack of it) is affecting his perception. You’ll want to keep in mind:

Sources of illumination

In a dark room, these could include a cell phone, nightlight, or the bluish, or the flickering light from a TV, among other things. In full dark, even the tiny glow from a smoke detector, or electronics such as a printer or backup battery system, can seem significant. Don’t forget outdoor sources that might offer illumination through a window, such as solar lights on an exterior walkway, twinkle lights on trees, street lamps, a neighbor’s floodlights, a flagpole lit from below, neon signs from nearby businesses, headlights from passing cars, or the flashing lights from parked emergency vehicles.

If the reader might wonder how the POV character can see, it’s best to provide an explanation.

In Southernmost, author Silas House does just that when his protagonist, Asher, must search for his missing son in low light after a devastating flood:

Here the earth was so wet it sucked at his shoes. Up ahead were the thick woods crowding the ridge behind their house. Asher stopped at the mouth of the path to allow his eyes to adjust.

The woods were all blackness, the full trees of high summer blocking out any starlight that might have guided his way. But he knew these woods so well he could walk through them with his eyes closed.

In this excerpt, House not only explains why Asher will be able to navigate in the dark, but he signals the transition so that the reader can adjust to the change in light as well. Dan Brown uses a similar technique in The Da Vinci Code when symbologist Robert Langdon visits the scene of the opening crime:

Usually impeccably illuminated, the Louvre galleries were startlingly dark tonight. Instead of the customary flat-white light flowing down from above, a muted red glow seemed to emanate upward from the baseboards—intermittent patches of red light spilling out onto the tile floors.

As Langdon gazed down the murky corridor, he realized he should have anticipated this scene. Virtually all major galleries employed red service lighting at night—strategically placed, low-level, noninvasive lights that enables staff members to navigate hallways and yet kept the paintings in relative darkness to slow the fading effects of overexposure to light. Tonight, the museum possessed and almost oppressive quality. Long shadows encroached everywhere, and the usually soaring vaulted ceilings appeared as a low, black void.

“This way,” Fache said, turning sharply right and setting out through a series of interconnected galleries.

Langdon followed, his vision slowly adjusting to the dark. All around, large-format oils began to materialize like photos developing before him in an enormous darkroom…

Here, Brown alters our perceptions of this renowned museum by illuminating the kind of world in which his story could take place. And while I’m aware that Brown’s literary prowess is rarely praised, I have to admit that I really like that darkroom image.

Sources of shadow

Buildings can create dramatic angles; large trees near a house, sent into motion by the wind, can add a carousel of shadows to a room that could suggest an imaginary intruder or distract from a real one. Eerie disruptions of light can be formed by bats feeding on bugs beneath a street lamp, or an osprey swooping between a swimmer and the sun.

This passage is from Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts, when Novalee Nation, seventeen, pregnant, and abandoned by her boyfriend, is living by night in a Wal-Mart. We’ve just learned that three alarm clocks have sent her “plodding down the aisle to the clock counter,” ensuring that she will have time to stow her sleeping bag behind others on the shelf before employees arrive.

She had not always needed alarms in the beginning when she hardly slept more than minutes at a time. Strange noises would jerk her from her dreams and leave her rigid with fear, her eyes creating monsters in the shadows of coffeepots and hunting jackets. But once she got used to the building, got to know the look of the dark and the feel of the sounds, sharp and metallic, she began to sink into sleep too thick for sounds to slip through.

Your character’s vision

While your own character is stumbling around in their low-light situation, visual acuity may well come into play. Is your character near- or far-sighted? Is he suffering from cataracts or other disease- or age-related impairments? If outside during the day, is he blinded by the sun, an effect amplified by white sand or snow? Is he cutting glare with sunglasses to which he couldn’t afford the addition of prescription lenses? Does the world look catawampus because he lost a contact, has a broken lens in his glasses, or perhaps because one eye is nearly swollen shut?


Don’t forget the way weather can impact vision—rain blurs, fog obscures, frost turns windows opaque.


Might the type of lighting convey something about your character? Is a Chihuly chandelier the centerpiece of the room or is there one precariously balanced floor lamp still in use because it lights a bulb? Whether utilitarian fluorescence, warm incandescence, spiral-shaped CFLs, or LEDs in bright white or warm daylight, even bulb choice might be a way to convey something about your character. A lava lamp or black light could establish an early 70s vibe in a historical; in a contemporary story, those choices might indicate either a character with strong sentimental attachments or one who just can’t move on or grow up.

Then there are things that the character won’t see due to denial, stubbornness or fear. Or things they wouldn’t see due to self-absorption or natural tendency—for example, even though I worry about being photographed in the same outfit too many times, I can rarely tell you, once an event is over, what the speaker was wearing.

A character may be unaware of surroundings because she is lost in thought—this too can describe me on just about any day—but this could also be situation-specific, such as when a character wanders into a bad part of town because her worries blinded her to observation. If you use this technique, avoid describing the thing that “isn’t” being observed until the character comes back to her observational powers. Once POV is established, I am unconvinced when a character says something like, “As I walked, lost in thought, I ignored the fact that the houses surrounding me were now abandoned factories.” This character clearly is not ignoring that fact at all; indeed, she is remarking upon it. Better: “I was pulled from my worries when an eerie quiet replaced the sounds of traffic beside me. The sun had set behind the buildings across the street—buildings that were no longer stately row homes but abandoned factories, staring down at me through broken windows.”

As with all aspects of craft, the most important thing is to serve your story. To that end, always ask yourself: is this low-light scene a gimmick, or does it move the story forward by complicating my character’s goal? Is there a compelling reason that the lights would go off right now? What am I trying to hide through the use of shadow, or illuminate through the use of light?

Master the lighting of key scenes in your novel and you’ll be able to add another mad skill to your toolbox.

Are there scenes from novels you’ve read that sprang to life for you in an unforgettably dramatic way due to their lighting design? Do you give thought to how your scenes are lit? Feel free to add further ideas to the above bank of lighting ideas, or to share a lighting effect from your own work.


About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.

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